In a state where access hangs in the balance, a culture of stigma can make things even harder. One former pageant queen wants to change that.

m from a small town in Alabama called Guntersville, about 45 minutes south of Huntsville. People say my town has more churches than people—and all the people go to church. Growing up, my father owned his own packaging company, but on Sundays, he preached at Victory Cornerstone church, in nearby Arab, Alabama. He started preaching there a couple years after my brother died of cancer when I was nine, and he’s still doing it. But after everything that’s happened, I don’t go to that church anymore.

Guntersville has always been a conservative place where women, my mom included, played by the rules that were impressed upon them. Each decision was a family decision and you needed to consult your husband about everything. Women were taught to ask permission. I didn’t love growing up there—I never felt like I was allowed to develop my own thoughts.

When I was 17, I had a boyfriend who was a year older than me. We’d talked about getting married, but I really wanted to go to college first. Then I found out I was pregnant.

I was really shocked, because I was on the Pill—I’d had severe endometriosis for years, and the Pill helped me manage it. At first, when I was late, I didn’t even consider that I could be pregnant, since I’d always been irregular. But then I started feeling queasy, like I was going to pass out at any minute. I thought, On the off-chance I am pregnant, it’s better to know. So I took a ring from my mom’s jewelry box and wore it to the drugstore to buy a pregnancy test. I didn’t want the lady at checkout thinking I was unmarried and having sex. When the test came up positive, I threw up.

Jenna as a child with her parents and two older siblings.


Almost immediately, I had terrible morning sickness and panicked delusions. You know when you scrape your leg and you can almost feel your heartbeat in the cut? I was having mental pictures where every time I looked at my stomach I’d see a heartbeat there. I felt like there was something in me that I need to get out. I couldn’t even look in the mirror without having a panic attack.

My boyfriend didn’t even believe I was pregnant at first. He wanted me to get another test and then drive to his house and take it in front of him. I did, but I was enraged. I thought, This is not someone I should be with right now, let alone for the rest of my life. When the test came up positive again, I stormed out to my car. I knew that having a baby was not what I needed to do. I needed to go to college. I needed to get out of this relationship.

Competing in a pageant.


I called my older sister, who said, “I’ll drop everything and come down there.” Years ago, when she came out as gay, my parents were not ok with it, and they still aren’t. It was through that experience that I learned, My parents are right about a lot of things, but maybe they’re not right about everything. I saw firsthand how not allowing people to live their truth can destroy people and families and communities. My dad basically cut my sister out of his life over her sexuality.

But she is like a second mother to me, and having her support made me feel brave. So after I got off the phone with her, I called the abortion clinic in Birmingham, about an hour and a half away. They told me I’d have to make two trips down there: One for “counseling,” and one for the actual procedure.

Next I called my parents. Not telling them wasn’t really an option; I was so dependent on them. I figured I’d just tell them and get it over with and we’d never talk about it again and everything would be okay.


But I’ll never forget what my dad said when I told him. He said, “One of my kids had cancer and died and I hate that. One of my kids is gay and I hate that. And my other kid is pregnant and having an abortion and I’m ashamed and I hate that.” Here I was, this golden child who competed in pageants and got good grades and had only ever wanted to make my dad proud, letting him down. Still, I never wavered in my decision. I knew that this was hands down the only choice for me at that point in my life.

When my sister arrived, she gave me a robe that had been given to her by my dad’s secretary at his church—the first person she came out to. The woman had told her to put it on whenever she felt alone or depressed. Now my sister gave it to me and said, “This is your body, Jenna, and your life.” It felt good to have someone tell me that, even though I already knew it in my gut.

Not long after my abortion, I went off to college. For years, I was just living my life trying to erase the shame I felt. My dad is all about trophies. He loves a trophy. So I wanted to be a trophy daughter. I studied sports broadcasting, hoping to be on ESPN like Erin Andrews. I placed in the top five twice in the Miss Alabama pageant. I dated a football player. I married a football player. He went on to the NFL, signing with the Minnesota Vikings. My husband and I started a charity that gives football tickets to sick kids. I was leading this really charmed life, but I still felt this emptiness. Like, Who am I? It was like I was harboring this huge secret and nobody really knew who I was. I didn’t know who I was. When you live your life like that, it’s so hard to form authentic connections to other people. I was afraid to let people in because I didn’t think they’d like what they saw. I hadn’t even told my husband about my abortion.

Jenna and her husband right after the birth of their son, Barron.


In 2016, when I was pregnant with my son, I moved back to Guntersville so he could be near both sets of grandparents and I could take on a bigger role at my dad’s company. My husband was between teams and I just wanted to give birth somewhere familiar. I still seemed like this happy girl with a perfect life, but inside I was really struggling. I’d flex on Instagram all the time. Here’s me and my nice car, here are pictures of me in pageants, here’s this body I’m starving myself to have, here’s this vacation I’m taking with my family, even though they don’t allow any of us to be who we really are. Looking back, I’m ashamed that so much of what I put out there barely scratched the surface of who I was.


Then, last year, I saw that Alabama was voting on an amendment that would recognize “the right to life” of unborn children. I got chills. I was just so fed up with having to fake it and I decided right then and there that I would stop. One of the big supporters of the bill was the Lieutenant Governor, who is from my town and is friends with my father. Another supporter was a state senator from my district. I took them both out to lunch individually and told them that I’d had an abortion and that I was personally against the amendment. They were shocked. Neither really knew what to say.

After that, I felt something shift inside of me. It was like, “Okay—you’re an advocate now.” So I kept going. I talked to women in my dad’s office, where I was a sales representative. I talked to my parents about it for the first time in a long time and they were extremely uncomfortable. I tried to host a “Vote No” part at my house and lots of people RSVP’d that they were coming. Then on the day of the party, everyone cancelled at the last minute except for literally one person. My friends all said they didn’t want people to see their cars at my house now that I was telling people I had an abortion. Or that they didn’t want their husbands to find out they were supporting the “Vote No” movement.

At the Georgia State Capitol for Pink Out the Halls, an event hosted by Planned Parenthood.


When I learned that the amendment had passed, I just got so mad. These laws speak to the full invasion of a woman’s body. They give the government control of women. When you have politicians talking about the death penalty for women who have abortions but not any kind of punishment for the man who impregnated the woman, that just shows how backwards we are.

I decided that I wanted to dedicate my life to fighting for reproductive rights—especially in Alabama, which is ground zero for this kind of work. I started studying for the LSAT. I went even more public with my story by speaking with a local news reporter that some activists at Planned Parenthood had connected me with. I knew that when the article came out, people would say I’m a murderer who should’ve kept her legs closed, and they did. Friends and family and perfect strangers commented on Facebook that I was a monster and a terrible human being and that I should’ve used protection. I wanted to write back that I had used protection.

My jaw really hit the floor when my aunt, who wasn’t able to have her own children, told me I had robbed her of ten years of raising a precious baby and that she couldn’t forgive me. Then my life insurance agent “accidentally” bcc’d me on an email with a link to the article that he sent out to a ton of people in my hometown, saying I was an evil and immoral woman. I replied asking if he would like to discuss the issue with me directly. He wrote back that he must have been hacked.

People from my dad’s church started posting the article all over Facebook, writing things like, “This is disgusting.” Or they’d call me up and say, “You’re a murderer.” The associate pastor at my dad’s church posted a lot of really hateful things. When I reached out to him and said, “You can’t possibly think this is right,” he told me that everyone missed seeing me at church and wanted me to come back.


A lot of people wouldn’t talk to me directly. They just wanted to talk about me—I was a hot piece of gossip. It was weird to know I was being talked about wherever I went and that I was basically the villain of the town. But I tried to let it roll of my back. One good thing to come of this is that for the first time in my life, I no longer care what other people think.

When my dad found out about the article, he texted me and said, “I can’t believe you did that, you’re a loser and a joke. Another terrible decision on your part. STUPID! Everyone is going to talk about me.” Reading his text, all I could think was that he was acting like a two-year old. And I knew, because I had a two-year old.

When we finally spoke, I said, “Dad, do you really think what I did was wrong, having an abortion?” And he said, “Well, you were having panic attacks, so it was probably the right choice for you.” In other words, my abortion was okay until other people knew about it.

At the same time, there were a lot of women, including women in my own family, who reached out to tell me, “I had an abortion too, and no one knows.” Or “I took my best friend to have an abortion and no one knows.” Or “My daughter had an abortion and no one knows—and it was the right thing to do.”


My husband was also super-supportive. By the time I spoke out, I’d already told him about the abortion in couples counseling, and he was surprised, but totally behind the decision I made and also my decision to start talking about it.

But this has definitely impacted a lot of my other relationships. Now I only surround myself with people who are uplifting and not critical. I kinda love being exposed because people know what they’re going to get with me and I no longer have to pretend. I feel like I can finally exhale for the first time in ten years.

In Birmingham, Alabama for the ACLU’s March for Reproductive Freedom in May 2019.


What I hope is that through telling my story, other women will be inspired to tell theirs, because I think that’s how we’re going to make change happen. Real change is change that happens in people’s hearts and minds. Among women in my state, I am actually really lucky—I was able to access an abortion when I needed one, and I was able to pay for it. That’s why I now feel obligated to use my privilege to bust through stigma and speak out about this issue in a way that a lot of other women tell me they wish they could.

Last week, the governor of Alabama signed a bill that will make performing any abortion a felony. In Georgia, since a 20-week ban was signed into law in 2012, the maternal mortality rate has doubled. If the legislators in my state actually looked at the facts, they would see that the laws they’re using to get re-elected or to make a statement impact people’s lives in real and terrible ways. They particularly impact poor women and women of color.

I want to help start a conversation about this. I want to say, “Here I am. I am Jenna, and I had an abortion. And guess what? A lot of other women have abortions too.”